Sunday, March 24, 2013

Piero at the Frick

We took in the  new Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York last week and it came home to me for the first time what people mean when they say that Piero is an original, his own man, outside the common ruck of  his time.  I suppose what I'm saying is no more than that only now do I have enough acquaintance with his contemporaries to be able to intuit some of the differences between him and the others.

Walter Klein also discusses Piero's individuality, in his splendid review of the show, although he approaches the matter a bit differently than I do.  I was lucky enough to have the chance to make the ritual pilgrimage up to Monterchi and San Sepolocro a few years back, later to Urbino and Arrezo--so I've had the good fortune to see most of Piero's best work in its natural habitat.    I  think I've been able to intuit a sense of how Piero had rejected Firenze--in his time, probably already the center of the Italian art world--for the gnarly hill country where he was born.   View a few (in fact, there are only a few) of those exemplars and you can't escape the notion of an artist who wanted to  proceed undistracted by the fashions of his time, who wanted to do things his own way.  Kaiser speaks of the "serene immobility" of Piero figures; he quotes Zbigniew Herbert, speaking of the paintings'  "ontological indestructibility."   I'd go further: I'd say they exist almost outside of time, like the bodily essences of Cézanne (quoting Roger Fry, Kaiser mentions Cézanne).

In this I'd say Piero stands at the opposite end of a continuum from another artist I think I can understand better: Caravaggio, whose figures so often to seem to leap out at you in an electric moment.  Perhaps needless to say, I don't for a moment mean to disparage either Piero or Caravaggio--only to suggest that a fully rounded education would require the appreciation of both, and of the particularity of their achievement.

Kaiser offers superb guidance for this particular show (can't say I agree with him about St. John's feet, though).  But he also offers the best possible appreciation of Piero's importance in his own time:

In significant ways, Piero’s paintings are the quintessential artistic expression of the quattrocento humanism given definition by authors like Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Poliziano, Vittorino da Feltre, and Pico della Mirandola—much as the Pazzi Chapel in Florence is the architectural expression of those same Renaissance ideals. Describing an orderly, rational world of individual freedom and dignity inspired by the world of classical antiquity, they extol the virtues of eloquence and learning, liberty and aspiration, personal nobility, goodness, and beauty. With inherent hopeful optimism, they depict an ideal universe of the imagination in which man, endowed with unlimited capacities and encompassing intelligence, has the possibility of perfecting himself and creating a harmonious society of virtuous citizens. That ideal world is one of the noblest dreams of Western man, and it suffuses the paintings of Piero della Francesca; for they depict, as Berenson wrote, “his dream of surroundings worthy of his mind and heart, where his soul would feel at home."
 Fn.:  I'm ashamed to say Kaiser never registered on me before although it is clear he is a figure to be reckoned with in Renaissance studies.  The NYRB alone offers a modest but impressive catalog of reviews and essays, some of which I must have read when they were new.  In any event, I'm going to try to make time to read them all now.

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